Between the 1930s and the 1950s, sugar was Taiwan's most valuable commodity. Sugarcane has been grown on the island for about 400 years, but it under Japanese colonial rule between 1895 and 1945 that the local sugar industry really began to thrive. In the 1915-1939 period, the amount of sugar produced per hectare harvested rose from 2.76 tonnes to 9.91 tonnes. By the late 1930s, sugar plantations covered a fifth of Taiwan’s farmland. Many of them have been afforested (like the one shown below) or used for the development of science-based industrial parks.
In 1950, sugar’s contribution to Taiwan’s exports peaked at 73.6%. It remained an important source of foreign exchange until the 1970s, when competition from Brazil and other producers pushed Taiwan’s sugar industry into unstoppable decline. All but three of the island’s 49 sugar refineries were closed. Some were demolished; others were repurposed as cultural venues. The state-owned Taiwan Sugar Corp. (TSC) has diversified away from the production and sale of sugar and now also grows orchids, raises hogs, and runs a chain of gas stations.
Hualien Sugar Factory (花蓮糖廠, above), which ceased operations in 2002, is neither the oldest nor grandest of Taiwan’s surviving sugar-processing facilities. Nevertheless, it is without doubt a beguiling place to visit for anyone interested in industrial heritage and Taiwan’s economic development. Being 47km south of Hualien City, not far from Guangfu Train Station, it’s also a fine place to break the long drive from Hualien to Taitung - especially if you like ice cream.
Many of those who stop here make a beeline for the frozen-products shop. It sells around 30 flavours of ice cream and popsicles, some of them seasonal. Among are likely to be some you’ve never sampled, such as azuki bean, taro, soy sauce or yeast. The sugarcane juice lollies are especially refreshing.
Two carp-filled pools (shown above) near the ice-cream store are in fact reminders of World War II. During the closing stages of the war in the Pacific, when the Americans were bombing industrial sites in Taiwan in a bid to weaken the Japanese war machine. Sugar refineries like Hualien’s were targeted because they supplied ethanol to the Japanese military. Elsewhere in the complex, girders still carry holes and other marks (obvious in the photo below) made by shrapnel.
Back in the factory's heyday, what's now the parking lot was usually piled high with harvested sugarcane. This was often delivered by narrow-gauge trains, like the one pictured below:
The very first stage of the industrial process was removing dust, grit and gravel from the cane. The cane then moved through a series of machines, several of which bear the insignia of the British, German, Dutch and Japanese companies which made them. Visitors can wander among these crushers, rollers, pulping vats and boilers. Few are labelled, and the information tends to be in Chinese only, but it’s easy to spend half an hour or more here, gazing at the rusting yet intensely photogenic infrastructure.
For those living hereabouts, the factory wasn’t only a place of employment. The company provided health care, housing and entertainment. The old clinic still stands, as does the former movie theatre/meeting hall.
Rather than demolish what used to be senior managers’ official housing, TSC renovated the refinery’s Japanese-era wooden bungalows and turned them into Hualien Tourism Sugar Factory Guesthouse.
The Japanese personality of these buildings has been preserved, even after extensive rebuilding using hinoki wood sourced from the US and Vietnam. Within the 28 rooms, guests sleep on tatami mats, and don yukata (traditional dressing gowns) after soaking in ofuro (high-sided wooden bathtubs), prompting one local Chinese-language blogger to wax: ‘The style allows you to feel the beauty of the Japanese culture of silence, soft colors and soft lighting’.
East Rift Valley National Scenic Area Administration.